New UNODC data sheds light on smuggling of migrants by sea

19 December 2011 - As the world marked International Migrants Day on 18 December, UNODC released an issue paper on the smuggling of migrants by sea. The paper covers the international legal framework relating to the smuggling of migrants by sea, current responses to and challenges posed by such smuggling and recommendations to strengthen responses.

While the smuggling of migrants by sea accounts for only a small proportion of the total number of migrants smuggled worldwide, it accounts for the highest number of deaths among smuggled migrants.

The total number of deaths that occur among migrants trying to cross the seas from Africa to Europe is unknown, however an estimated 1,000 people lose their lives each year. The International Catholic Migration Commission puts the number higher, reporting that 2,000 people lost their lives in the first months of 2011. In May 2011 for instance, 61 people died of dehydration and starvation on board a boat in the Mediterranean Sea.

"Effective action in this crucial area requires a comprehensive approach that confronts the underlying issues of migration and development, especially those related to poverty," says Yury Fedotov, UNODC Executive Director.

As immigration channels become more limited, more people turn to smugglers for assistance, who endanger the lives and safety of migrants in their increasingly risky efforts to circumvent border controls. Added to this are reports of both state and private vessels failing to rescue migrants in distress at sea despite being in a position to do so.

Mr. Fedotov believes that to effectively address these crimes which offer low risks but high profits for the criminals, States need to take an integrated approach by implementing laws and policies on transnational crime, immigration and border control.

"States must also cooperate with each other, while ensuring that traffickers and smugglers are prosecuted. In following this path, we need to mainstream human rights by protecting the rights of the trafficked victims and the smuggled migrants," he adds.

It is hoped that the practical experiences of responding to migrant smuggling by sea discussed in the issue paper by countries of origin, countries of transit and countries of destination will help other Member States in formulating their responses to suit their local contexts.

Mr. Fedotov urges those Member States that have not yet done so to both ratify and implement the Trafficking in Persons Protocol and the Migrant Smuggling Protocol, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Crime.

Related information:

Issue paper on the smuggling of migrants by sea (pdf)

Full statement by UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov on International Migrants Day

UNODC on the smuggling of migrants

Video clip on the smuggling of migrants in Africa

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